A fan can see quite clearly the physical experience of a professional soccer player. They can read about the tactics. They can head out to practice and try and understand how the sausage is made. And with the existence of twitter and Instagram, we can also get a look inside a players leisure time. But rarely, if ever, do we get a glimpse into the emotional and psychological life of a soccer player.
It is the internal, mental game that Bobby Warshaw brings to life in his autobiography ‘When the dream became a reality.’ Warshaw is an erstwhile football journeyman with an all-too-brief career. After a successful college career at Stanford and two years with FC Dallas, Bobby plied his trade in Sweden and Norway, and almost Israel, before finishing up with his local USL team. But his understanding of the game and his ability to reflect on it so intelligently ensures that that he will be remembered for more than his minutes on the pitch with FC Dallas, Ängelholms, GAIS, Bærum, Hønefoss, or Harrisburg.
The book has some of the entertaining and expected entries that one would come to expect from an athlete’s memoir: Bobby’s first goal; a blow-by-blow account of a championship game; the Ur-story of where his fire and competetive drive orginates; a small degree of locker-room tell-all about a notable figure in American soccer that Warshaw did NOT get along with. All of those parts are interesting enough.
What sets this book apart from the normal athlete’s autobiography, though, is Warshaw’s rigorous self-analysis about his emotions; his self-doubt, his turmoil, and his anger. Warshaw understands that many elite-level athletes carry with themselves an ego and an attitude that crosses over into self-delusion and narcissism.
Others thrive as athletes because they either lock away or do not have much of an emotional life to speak of. Warshaw, instead, openly struggles with the complicated ying-yang duality in his emotional life, which he understands can both push him to excel and hinder him against succeeding. He is fiercely competitive and committed, to the point that he is exasperated at his teammates for dogging it on occasion. But his competitive fire is also what allowed him, a 6’0” 185 lbs. player of no particular genetic pre-disposition to being an elite athlete, to operate at the highest levels of American football. And yet, at the same time, his fire and emotion leads him to clash with his coaches in some ways that may have hindered his career.
The driving engine of this book is Warshaw’s recognition that is his greatest gift, his passion, is also his worst enemy. It is the beating heart of the book, which elevates it above the perfunctory athlete autobiography and into the realm of can’t-put-it-down-page-turner. I started it on Friday night and finished it midday Sunday, and still had time to catch two Premier League games and a Bundesliga match. And also pay attention to my kids, sorta.
The book is at its absolute best when discussing what coaches get, and don’t get, about how to man-manage the fragile egos and complex locker room ecosystems of professional athletes. Warshaw sees the moments when things clicked, and didn’t, in training and building a team that believes in the plan, and each other. He was in all manner of situations: good, bad, and indifferent, and his ability to reflect on his place in those situations might be the thing that stands out the most in this book.
There are also the requisite fly-on-the-wall aspects to the book that give soccer fans what they really want: a sense of what life is REALLY like in professional soccer. It was fascinating to get the inside scoop on a player-manager relationship gone sour, as it did for Warshaw with Manager Schellas Hyndman at FC Dallas. There is also the cool top-tier athlete name-dropping going on - Warshaw played on the U-17 USMNT with Chad Marshall and Omar Gonzalez. There is the nifty travelogue section of the book, where Warshaw plies his trade in Norway, Sweden, Israel, and Harrisburg, PA. Bobby even manages to coax a good yarn out of the well-worn athlete’s staple of the ‘Big Championship Game.’ And when he tells the story of his first MLS goal, you of course find yourself grinning like an idiot, because you’ve been rooting for him for the last one hundred pages.
The book’s central flaw is also part of its charm: it’s a bit raw and uneven. Some chapters are more compelling than others. In some places, Bobby bares his soul, like when he describes the cooling of the internal fire that let him know that he was shifting into the pre-retirement phase, or when he recounts his struggles in his second season with Baerum SK in Norway. In others, he shies away from getting too deep, like when he explains how he mangled a relationship with a girl because of football. Some chapters are told in a linear manner, others start at the end and work backwards. Some chapters give you a good descriptive image of what a place looked and felt like, and in others you’ve just got to imagine it on your own.
That’s part of the charm. This is not a sanitized hagiography of one of the greats, nor is it a slap-dash tell-all gripefest from a fringy bit player lamenting that he ‘coula been a contenda’. It is, rather, the real life story of real footballer with phenomenal self-awareness, describing a very real, yet all-too-brief, career. We need more soccer books like this: thoughtful, honest, imperfect books about thoughtful, honest, and imperfect soccer players.
“When the Dream Became Reality” by Bobby Warshaw, The Athlete Story LLC, 2017.
$10 on Kindle, $15 in paperback, $20 in hardcover.